No more heroes anymore

With the first article of his new ongoing column Falling Towards Apotheosis we welcome Scott Grandison of Comic Book Outsiders to the GS website.

“The fundament of a superhero is the guy in tights saving innocent people from bad things. It’s amazing how infrequently that seems to happen in superhero comics these days.”

Frank Miller.


Spirit of the Age

One of the great, not to mention most ironic, things about science-fiction is how much of a product of their age they are. It seems that, in comparison to so many other genres, the fiction of the fantastic reflects the hopes and dreams, the joys and fears and just simply the general zeitgeist of the age in which they were created.

The reign of queen Victoria, a time of enormous expansion by the European superpowers and unprecedented technological advances brought about by the second industrial revolution produced the optimistic visionary science fiction of Jules Verne. Classic tales of exploration brought about by magnificently steampunk inventions took us to places humanity had only previous dreamed of such as voyages From the Earth to the Moon or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The aspirations of the age inspired Verne to write about air travel before aircraft, underwater travel before the submarine and, of course space travel before the spacecraft had been conceived.

Less positively, what did US paranoia about communism in the mid-1950s give us? A time where government tried to persuade people to see the red menace around every corner, and associated with it an almost like robotic loss of personal automony. Where, in the world of the McCarthy witch-hunts even your best friend might not be all they appear. Well, possibly the most well known science-fiction film (and book) from that era is Invasion of the Body Snatchers – a film that speaks directly to this same paranoia. Aliens (i.e. communists) from an alien world (i.e. Russia) infiltrating our American towns, wiping out American values, worst of all they look exactly like Americans!

Incidentally, most of the people associated with the book and film absolutely deny the allegorical aspects of the story. Walter Mirisch, the films producer wrote

 

“People began to read meanings into pictures that were never intended. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an example of that. I remember reading a magazine article arguing that the picture was intended as an allegory about the communist infiltration of America. From personal knowledge, neither Walter Wanger nor Don Siegel, who directed it, nor Dan Mainwaring, who wrote the script nor the original author Jack Finney, nor myself saw it as anything other than a thriller, pure and simple”

Walter Mirisch.


However, looking back, these allegories seem so blatant Mirisch’s assertion seems to very much support my point. Science-fiction and fantasy effectively speaks to the spirit of the time that in which they were conceived – regardless of the original intentions of the author.  You shape your tools and then your tools shape you.

Heroes with a Thousand Faces

Nowhere does this seem more true than in the superhero myth.  Tales of heroes endowed with supernatural abilities, almost certainly predate the existence of formal writing systems.  Without doubt much of the early fiction writing that exists is largely concerned with superheroes.  For example Gilgamesh, the 2/3 god, 1/3 human hybrid dates at least from the 7th Century BCE, possibly even earlier.  Further examples abound.

And of course just as science-fiction holds up a mirror to the age in which it was created, superhero tales do precisely the same, only more so.  If you want to know about the hopes and dreams, the fears and insecurities or the needs and desires of individuals that popularised a particular myth then look at the heroes they raise up, the powers beyond those of of normal men they aspire to and the situations in which they find themselves.

What makes the modern superhero particularly interesting though is that not only do they reflect the time in which they were created but they have also been continually reinterpreted and reinvented throughout the decades to keep them up to date with the desires of their creators and readers.  This isn’t a new phenomenon, everything from Robin Hood to the Grail Quest has been reinvented over the centuries in an identical fashion.

Let’s take Superman, probably the archetypal modern superhero as an example.  Created in 1938, close enough to the Great Depression to be heavily influenced by it, we find an invulnerable invincible hero acting in the role of social activist.  Much of his time is preoccupied with fighting crooked businessmen and politicians and demolishing run-down tenements.  If this sounds a lot like the more powerful human being on Earth is effectively acting like Dick Tracey, you’d probably be right – he was created in 1931.

Supes didn’t stand still, however – probably one of the reasons that he is still with us today.  In 1946 he took on the Klu Klux Klan.  In 1998 we were presented with Superman: Peace on Earth, written by Alex Ross and Paul Dini, where the problem of world hunger is tackled.  And so on, and so on.  Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Superman could probably provide many other examples.

Staring into the Abyss

Which leads me to my final point, and my most interesting question. The creation of Superman signaled the era of the modern concept of the superhero and with it a dizzying array of new characters from the fearful to the downright bizarre. In the open marketplace of ideas perhaps our choice of superhero says more about us than it does about them?

Cosplay is a subculture within a subculture, where individuals dress up as their favourite heroes and, basically, hang out at cons. Some cosplayers wear different costumes every year, but some you see dressing as the same character from con-to-con. I suspect that rather than picking which superhero to represent, they are in fact picking which superhero represents them. They’re displaying their innermost thoughts and desires for all to see, as long as you’re able to decode the cryptopsychology of the genre.

 

But isn’t this what we’re all doing by the choice of comics that we read? Not necessarily the subs we pick up now and again, or when we follow our favourite writers around from title to title. But the comics that we revisit again and again, even when they’re going through phases of,lets be frank, crapness.

So what’s it to be? Do you like the unilateral I-know-best of Superman? The damaged moral ambiguity of the Batman?

Personally I’ve always preferred the villains.

Scott Grandison

E-mail: scott (AT) comicbookoutsiders.com

Scott, along with co-host Stephen Aryan presents the Comic Book Outsiders podcast, part of the UK Comic Book Podcast Group.  Check out their podcast and blog at:

http://www.comicbookoutsiders.com

Also available through iTunes, Podcast Alley and other podcast indexing sites.

More from the world of Geek Syndicate

2 comments

  1. Nice article, Scott. Sums up how the evolution of the genre ties in with cultural developments and ideals nicely. Look forward to reading more “Falling” (as I’m going to call the column) in the future.

  2. comicbookoutsiders /

    Thanks, Wedge. Really pleased you like it. Hopefully you’ll enjoy the rest in the future!

    Best wishes,
    Scott.

%d bloggers like this: